By Brian Michael Bendis, Alex Maleev & Matt Hollingsworth
Over the course of the past 54 years, Doctor Doom has proven to be one of the most versatile of Marvel’s classic villains. Created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, he originally debuted in grand Marvel style in Fantastic Four #5. The issue is a quasi-ridiculous romp, best remembered now for The Thing’s adaptation of a pirate’s life and the introduction of arguably the most overused trope/narrative cheat in the Marvel Universe: Doctor Doom’s time machine. However, there was something appealing about this character which his further appearances cemented. Lee and Kirby knew the entertainment value of a larger-than-life antagonist cackling about his own brilliance while wearing one of the most eye-catching costumes in super-villainy. Doom’s arrogance was part of his appeal, whether played straight or parodied.
Over the decades, though, various writers would fill out Victor’s personality, giving him layers beyond those of a power mad tyrant. He rose to prominence from a persecuted minority (the Romani). He possessed a tragic devotion to his (literally) damned mother. His dual interest in science and magic define him as a man who blends seemingly irreconcilable mindsets. He could even align himself with heroes at times acknowledging a need for some greater good. Recently, writer Jonathan Hickman drew on many of these facets for his compelling portrayal of the omnipotent Doom struggling to preserve reality in Secret Wars, At the end of Secret Wars, Hickman gave Victor a chance to redeem his life and pursue a nobler path. Brian Michael Bendis picked up this thread by using Doom as a supporting character in Bendis’ Invincible Iron Man book. This week, Doom graduates to his own ongoing title Infamous Iron Man.
Infamous begins in recognizable Bendis fashion: a talky callback to a pivotal moment in an earlier comic book narrative (which in this case was also written by Bendis). Norman Osborne has gathered together a group of shady characters (The Hood, Loki, Emma Frost, Namor & Doom) with whom he wishes to run the world secret Cabal style. As they wait for their illustrious host to arrive, The Hood tries striking up some small talk with Doom, specifically inquiring after Doom’s history dealing with the demons which at one point held possession of Doom’s mother’s soul. The Hood himself had a complicated relationship with a demon, so it makes sense that he would seek out advice on the subject. However, the flatfooted manner in which he attempts to engage Doom does not ring true even allowing for The Hood’s novice status. Mostly the sequence feels like Bendis indulging in Bendis-speak while also clumsily conveying background information which could have been conveyed in a more natural manner.
The narrative improves with a shift to the present day. Diablo is holding Maria Hill hostage and Doom has decided to rescue her. The dialogue may remain a bit wonky, but Bendis does successfully convey that Doom’s newfound heroism has not tempered his natural arrogance. This raises an interesting question: how much humility is required for a hero? Is the mere act of heroism sufficient? Such personality traits make Doom a natural successor to Tony Stark, someone who was never going to win “Most Humble Member” at Avengers’ gatherings. While the hows and whys are left unsaid, Infamous does confirm Stark’s new status post-Civil War II. (Those who wish to avoid such details should skip to the next paragraph). The highlight of the issue involves Doom’s conversation with Stark’s brainwaves which have been uploaded into fully functioning A.I. program. (What is it with these billionaire superheroes and their outlandish contingency plans?) The concept of a disembodied Stark observing events, yet unable to directly engage with them is an intriguing one. In addition, Bendis invests this odd couple with a natural rhythm which avoids the quirks which often plague his recent writing. Tony and Victor have a colorful history together which Bendis makes clear without stating anything directly. The scene may be brief, yet it is a reminder of how skillful Bendis can be as a writer.
Art for Infamous is provided by Bendis’ frequent collaborator, Alex Maleev. Maleev is an artist with a very distinct style which needs to be well-matched to the subject matter. This was true in projects such as Daredevil and Scarlet, where Maleev’s sketchy style brought out the pulpy undercurrents of the narrative. At the same time, there can be a stiffness to some of his figural work which does not lend itself as naturally to large scale superhero set pieces. As with Bebdis’ writing, it is a little unclear how much Infamous will play to Maleev’s strengths. There are some striking flourishes, such as a POV view from behind Doom’s mask during the Cabal sequence. Similarly Maleev draws a fantastic perspective shot of The Thing which lends Ben a towering, almost gigantic, stature. One of the best elements of the art is Matt Holingsworth’s coloring. Hollingsworth fills the pages with dark shadows and muted hues which reflect the ambiguous motivations of the title character.
Overall, Infamous’ debut suggests a work in progress. The content is mostly setup, leaving unanswered questions about what shape the series will take in future issues. There is much potential here, though the execution can be flawed in places. However, as with its protagonist, Infamous leaves readers with the hope that it will indeed find a way to greatness.